Fire Ants Can Teach Tunneling Robots A Thing Or Two About Rescue Missions

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology took inspiration from fire ants for their study on robot mechanisms and the way these fire ants move underground helped them gain valuable insight into developing new robots specifically for rescue missions.

"Lots of the materials in disaster sites - landslides, rubble piles - are loose materials, which you're going to potentially have to create structures out of," lead researcher Nick Gravish told the BBC. "You might want, for example, to create a temporary structure for people buried down beneath."

Nick and his fellow researchers built several ant farms to closely monitor how the fire ants move through underground tunnels. This was aided by the use of special cameras and x-ray tomography techniques.

Also, they jostled these ant farms to better understand how the ants moved and righted themselves when subjected to external pressure of this kind.

"We were so surprised to see them move so fast," Gravish told Discovery News. "You get a sense that slipping and falling is not a problem. We see that ants can run over the top of each other, and lift each other up. They can scramble as fast as possible and there's no penalty for that."

To carefully observe limb movement, the researchers created a smooth glass tunnel, through which the ants were allowed to move. The glass tunnel helped them get a view of the limb motion of the fire ants from all sides.

Though their limb movement was precise and commendable, there were clearly no graceful movements, and the ants did slip and fall, but compensated by moving fast.

Yet another amazing fact that came to their notice was that the ants didn't merely rely on their limbs for movement; infact, their antennae proved to be a very useful tool in helping them sense and make better judgments. This insight may help scientists develop novel techniques to induce locomotory functions in their robots.

"A lot of us who have studied social insects for a long time have never seen antennae used in that way," Michael Goodisman, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Biology said. "This is an adaptive behavior that we never would have expected."

This study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on May 20.

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